The Underworld Unveiled: A Guide to Hades Related Symbolism

Hades in red toga with 3-headed dog main

Ancient Greeks believed in many gods, whose stories explained the ways of the universe.  Hades was the god of the underworld. The Earth’s riches (crops and precious minerals) also made him the god of wealth. Hades was a powerful dude. He had many symbols of authority such as a staff, crown, and chariot. Symbols such as a mean three-headed dog showed the dead mostly did not return to earth. Other symbols such as pomegranates, cornucopia, and cypress trees showed his wealth, power, and even some beauty.  

The Greek Gods

Ancient Greeks were polytheists. They believed in many gods, whose actions explained the ways of the universe.  Zeus was the leader of the gods.  

The gods in the eyes of the Greeks were not just actual beings and subjects of great and magical tales. They were symbols of things such as love, hate, and envy. The god of war, Ares, was as much a symbol of war itself as an actual physical being.  We are all for symbolism here.

Hades was the god of the underworld (aka Tartarus). The Ancient Romans knew him as Pluto.  Death is part of the circle of life.  Just ask your kids after they watch The Lion King yet again.  

Agricultural people, such as the Ancient Greeks, saw this each year. The crops grew, there was a harvest, winter came, and then spring came once more. They also believed we did not simply die.  People continued to have some existence in the afterlife. 

Symbols That Show You Stay Dead 

Many symbols of Hades remind us that once we are dead, we stay dead. There are a few stories about people who are able to visit the underworld and get out, but Christians do not worship Jesus for rising from the dead since it’s a common occurrence.  Same with Hades.  

A familiar symbol of Hades is Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the entrance of the underworld. Dog-like creatures were familiar symbols of death and preparation for a trip to the land of no return.  Anubis served this purpose for the Ancient Egyptians.  

Hades is often pictured in Greek dress, with a beard, and holding a staff (a long stick often symbolizing authority) or a bident (a pitchfork-like object). Don’t try to escape him. 

The keys of Hades also are symbols of his power over the dead. The keys magically can release people from the underworld. They also serve to lock people in.  

The pomegranate fruit, a juicy red delight that was said to have arisen from the blood of Adonis (a human so beautiful, goddesses fell in love with him), also was associated with Hades.  

Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds, which forced her to stay as his wife for a few months of the year. Persephone’s mother, the goddess of grain, was so sad that nothing could grow while her beloved daughter was away.  

Other Animals Associated With Hades 

Hades is associated with many animals.  He moves around via a chariot, a horse-drawn vehicle often used in military conflicts. So, horses are often familiar animals when we see Hades.

Snakes or serpents (sorry Indiana Jones) also often hung around Mr. Death. Snakes are symbols of danger and evil, including the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve. Snakes also symbolize fertility, rebirth, and renewal (shedding their skins). 

Sheep and cattle also were associated with Hades.  Both were used as sacrifices, their blood (symbol of life) spilled on the ground so it could seep down to the underworld.  

Owls also were not just symbols of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and civilized warfare. Owls were creatures of the night, believed by Ancient Romans to be symbols of evil forces.  Many cultures believe owls are symbols of death and destruction. They are apt familiars of Hades. 

Plants and Trees 

Hades was not only the god of the underworld.  He was also the god of riches and wealth, which is seen by his Roman name “Pluto” (wealthy). 

The earth is filled with riches, including crops and precious minerals. He was literally the ruler of the “underworld,” which included all the stuff underground.  Some symbols associated with Hades reflect his reign over these treasures. 

A common symbol of plenty was the cornucopia, a goat’s horn overflowing with flowers, fruit, and corn. This “horn of plenty” was a symbol of abundance, often shown at harvest time.

The cypress tree, which represents death and the afterlife, was known as the “mournful tree.”  A symbol of death and sorrow, they were planted near graves.  

The white poplar tree is also sacred to Hades. The story goes that Hades fell in love with a  nymph named Leuce and took her to the underworld. After she died, Hades wished to honor her, so brought into existence a beautiful white tree (the poplar) as a memorial.  

The mint plant also is associated with Hades, but the story is a bit more complicated.

Minthe was a nymph who became Hades’ mistress, making Persephone so jealous that she trampled her to death.  Minthe transformed into the sweet-smelling (and tasting) mint plant.  

And, there is also the Narcissus, sometimes known as the daffodil. Narcissus was a hunter known for his beauty. He fell in love with his reflection, falling to his death.  

But, do not worry, he became a beautiful flower. Some say the flowers were so beloved by Peresphone, that she was seized by Hades while picking them along the River Styx, which flows into the Underworld. 

Both Hades and Persephone were (are?) big fans of these flowers.  

It is somewhat ironic that so many beautiful plants and trees are symbols of Hades. Dead trees are less surprisingly also often associated with the god of the Underworld.   

A Mostly Not Evil Part of Life

Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades were brothers. After they won a battle between the gods, they drew lots to determine which realms each would rule over. 

Zeus won the sky, Poseidon the seas, and Hades the underworld.  Each realm is a basic part of the world as we know it.

We think of the “underworld” as a horrible place, where the devil resides.  This is not surprising since it is the realm of the dead. The underworld is the realm of Satan and Hell.  

Ancient Greeks did not think of Hades as evil. Death was part of life. Hades might have tricked his wife into living with him. But, that also symbolically explained a  basic part of our existence. 

A fallow field eventually led to a cornucopia. Greek gods reflected our imperfect reality.